karner blue butterfly saved the Albany Pine Bush. At least,
its status as a federally endangered species gave the people
who saved the Pine Bush a legal tool to take into the courts
and use to fight overdevelopment and push for preservation.
But today, though the Albany Pine Bush Preserve Commission
has managed to add 800 acres to the preserve largely through
the largesse of the state Environmental Protection Fund over
the past 15 years, bringing it to more than 3,000 acres, the
preserve is still 1,600 acres short of what would be considered
the minimum acreage needed to stay viable and stable as an
ecological system over the long term. Pitched battles are
still being fought over development all along its edges.
Many regional residents aren’t sure exactly where this Pine
Bush thing is and wouldn’t know a pitch pine if it sprouted
in their front yard.
At the Dec. 5, 2005, Albany Common Council meeting, during
a public hearing on rezoning a small portion of land near
the Daughters of Sarah Nursing Home for expansion of their
building, a spokesman for the nursing home presented a study
that showed no karner blues had been seen on the tiny parcel
in several years.
Council members struggled to understand why concerned residents
were opposing the development anyway. Descriptions of a fire-based
ecosystem where lupine, the flower on which the karner blues
feed, migrates from place to place following cyclical nutrient
availability, with the butterflies following, fell on confused
ears. Arguments about the Pine Bush’s value as a whole and
the danger of steady erosion at its edges barely got a chance
to be made. It was a tiny parcel, it wasn’t currently occupied
by a federally endangered species. The rezoning passed.
lucky we have a rare insect,” says James Reppert, a local
landscape architect and urban planner who used to work for
Albany County, “but it’s a result of a plant, which is the
result of a whole area. People still don’t recognize that
landscape when they see it.”
Take a stroll in the Pine Bush, and you can feel like you’re
in a different world. Underfoot is sand. The dominant pitch
pines are twisted and knobby. It’s not unusual to hear a coyote
howl. Patches of trees with blackened trunks indicate where
a planned fire has recently been staged.
The Pine Bush is a globally rare ecosystem. Pine barrens are
areas dominated by pines on nutrient-poor sandy soils, usually
dependent on regular fires, and inhabited by species not found
in the surrounding deciduous forests. Pine barrens themselves
are rare, but Albany’s is even rarer, being perhaps the only
known inland barrens formed from glacial sand deposits in
a large lake, rather than sand from the sea, or gravel.
The Albany Pine Bush tends to be several degrees warmer than
the surrounding area, with summer temperatures reaching the
highest in the state. It still has large vegetated dunes that
were formed by the wind as the glaciers retreated and Lake
Albany dried up. It is drained by streams that run in deep
ravines, and its vernal ponds are as rare a habitat as its
pitch pine-scrub oak barrens. It tends to harbor plants and
animals more characteristic of climes farther south, as well
as some that live only in similar niches.
Natural History of the Pine Bush, by Jeffrey Barnes, published
in 2003, lists six rare plants, 14 rare insects, and four
rare reptiles and amphibians, as well as nearly a dozen birds
or reptiles that meet the lesser standards of “threatened”
or “of special concern” that live in the Pine Bush. The Pine
Bush is also the place of discovery and scientific reference
point for more than 100 species of fungi, 70 species of insects,
and a vast number of plants, notes Barnes.
not about a butterfly, it’s about one of the most endangered
and rare habitats in the country, in the world, an inland
pine barrens,” says Chris Hawver, executive director of the
Albany Pine Bush Preserve Commission, a body formed in 1988
by the state Legislature and made up of representatives from
the Department of Environmental Conservation, the Office of
Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation, the Nature Conservancy,
the City of Albany, Town of Colonie, Town of Guilderland,
County of Albany and four citizen representatives. “It’s the
habitat that the butterfly uses, and it just so happens that
the butterfly is endangered because of a loss of habitat,
but it’s much more than a butterfly.”
Reppert likes to say that his favorite “wildlife” spotting
in the Pine Bush was a field biologist hard at work because
it was an exciting reminder of just how rare and special a
locale it is. There’s a danger in “hanging your hat on a banner
insect” when the “uniqueness is in the whole package,” he
says. “We’re always pointing ecological fingers at others.
‘Don’t destroy your rainforests!’ ” Well, he continues, we
are destroying something in our own backyard.
When the Pine Bush enters the news these days, it’s usually
due to a fight. These fights often seem like momentous no-win
predicaments, as with the debates over what to do with the
increasingly full Rapp Road Landfill (look for a Metroland
feature on the landfill next week) or like narrowly drawn
11th-hour zoning fights that hinge on the presence of the
famous karner blue.
While these are important battles being waged, they don’t
on their own carve a path toward successful preservation of
the Pine Bush. What would a proactive appreciation of Albany’s
ecological resource look like?
It might start with finding a way to spread recognition of
what the Pine Bush is—and how far it extends. Development,
especially roads and large parking lots, is seriously damaging
to the Pine Bush, particularly by fragmenting the habitat.
The Preserve Commission’s 2002 management plan calls for 1,875
privately owned acres within its study area to receive full
protection and 665 to remain open space for buffering, and
also identifies areas totaling 1,085 acres where partial portions
of the sites should be protected. The study area extends from
Fuller Road to Route 146 and from Western to Central avenues.
hint of natural: Pine bush species at the Daughters
of Sarah nursing home.
that doesn’t mean that places that have already been developed
cease to be in the Pine Bush region, nor does it mean that
study area represents the extent of the land that once was
Pine Bush and whose soils would readily support Pine Bush
habitat again, given a chance—the Pine Bush originally covered
25,000 acres, and extended at least as far east as the Harriman
Office Campus and as far west as Schenectady.
Still, even for those who would be interested, it can be hard
to know when you’re in spitting distance of the preserve,
let alone within the full study area, even though I-90, I-87,
and Route 155 all cut directly through the preserve, Washington
Avenue Extension dead-ends into it, and Fuller Road runs along
its eastern edge.
Driving east along the Thruway from Schenectady toward Albany,
sharp-eyed observers might notice an increase in the number
of pines along the roadway, but there’s very little that would
let them understand what they are seeing. As drivers approach
the Guilderland rest stop, they may notice a sign in the median
that welcomes them to the Hudson Valley Natural Heritage Area.
If they pull into the rest area, a small sign gives a dedication
to American servicemen and women. If they read through all
six sides of the informational kiosk in the rest stop that
describes the history of the area and the road, they will
find a couple-sentence description of the Pine Bush in the
introduction to the panel on the history of the fur trade.
That’s the extent of the welcome. In most cases you have to
actually get to an entrance to the preserve to be told that’s
where you are.
it possible to increase residents’ and visitors’ awareness
of where they are if they have not sought out the preserve
itself for recreation or education?
Reppert believes that a widespread campaign of replanting
public lands, especially roadways, rest stops and the UAlbany
uptown campus, with native species—and particularly native
species that visibly look like Pine Bush, could provide
a visual clue for motorists on the roads that cut through
or along the edges of the Pine Bush and for the thousands
of people—students, parents and others—who visit the campus.
A no-mow and native planting approach “would signal to motorists
that they are entering a special area imbued with indigenous
character that is too important to be disturbed,” he wrote
in a proposal called “Albany’s Last Frontier.” “It would make
a visible statement that the state considers Pine Bush habitat
more important than an artificially groomed English Landscape.”
in a lake of sand here,” notes Reppert. “Why are we pretending
we’re in Wisconsin?” He also suggests, for example, interpretive
signage at the Guilderland rest stop and a “Welcome to the
Albany Pine Bush” sign at Fuller Road and Washington Avenue
Extension, ideally in a roundabout planted with native species.
Reppert suggests for the UAlbany Campus, “no lawns except
on playfields, with full student access to those remaining
athletic playfields,” replacing current plantings in the interior
courts with “native species, minidunes, and interpretive signage”
and the “phased removal and replacement of all ornamental
planting” with native species.
Hawver likes this vision. “You could plant pitch pine, scrub
oak, prairie patches. You could do the same thing at the Harriman
campus. People would say ‘Oh, this is vegetation I’m not used
to seeing. It reminds me of Cape Cod or New Jersey.’ It would
be kind of nice, it would be a kind of claim to fame for the
Along with its intensive efforts to purchase more land for
the preserve, manage and restore lands already preserved,
and do educational outreach (including the scheduled-to-open-next-year
discovery center in the former SEFCU building), the commission
does work on encouraging native species planting, though in
somewhat less ambitious ways than Reppert’s vision. One of
their main motivations is that more traditional landscaping
plants—Hawver lists bayberry, honeysuckle and Norway maple—are
invasive, and tend to spread into the preserve and damage
It should be an easy sell. Planting and maintaining non-native
species in these sandy soils is hard work and involves heavy
doses of fertilizer, possibly layers of sod, and tons of watering.
And yet that is generally what property owners, from large
institutions to homeowners, default to, out of habit.
The commission, which Hawver notes has only advisory powers
(unlike the Pinelands Commission of New Jersey, which has
the power, even if it is not well enforced, to dictate acceptable
plantings in any development within New Jersey’s much larger
coastal pine barrens), does have some success. Hawver says
the commission has good working relationships with the DOT
and the Thruway Authority, and notes that two recent bridge
replacement projects along Route 155 and the upcoming work
between Thruway exits 24 and 23, were or will be replanted
with native species.
They also make recommendations in any commercial development
(whether or not they supported the development itself in the
first place). And sometimes they are taken up on them. Daughters
of Sarah Nursing Home on Washington Avenue Extension, while
under fire from Pine Bush advocates for its office complex
plans, has at least taken some of the commission’s recommendations
on landscaping, says Hawver. Clusters of pitch pine dot the
nursing home parking lot, and there are no invasives to be
seen. “It really looks good,” he says.
Finally, there are a number of homeowners in the buffer area
of the preserve who appreciate the Pine Bush (and the work
of maintaining a lawn on such sandy soils) enough to bring
some of it into their own yards. Only a few go whole hog,
notes Hawver, but quite a few have smaller lawns and then
For Reppert, these efforts aren’t quite enough (though he
recognizes the politically sensitive position the commission
is in due to its composition, and doesn’t fault its work).
First, as Hawver acknowledges, only homeowners are likely
to change existing landscaping just because they want to.
Otherwise, the spread of native plantings is dependent on
negotiations over a new development or on public infrastructure
projects that disturb existing vegetation and require replanting.
Also, while avoiding invasive species and planting things
Pine Bush wildlife would treat as habitat can be important
in reducing the dangerous fragmentation of Pine Bush ecology,
many of the efforts Hawver describes don’t rise to the level
of making people shake their heads and wonder what sort of
landscape they have entered. As Hawver acknowledges, the Daughters
of Sarah Nursing Home landscaping was “developed in a way
that [it has] a more aesthetic appeal that people are used
to for landscaping. More of a landscape design, but native
plantings.” While some of the pines are striking, there is
still cedar mulch on the ground rather than sand, and plenty
of traditional shrub layouts that at a glance would be indistinguishable
from the landscaping at nursing homes across the country.
Even when they go native, highway medians tend to be planted—for
ease of maintenance, sight lines, and DOT-required clear zones—with
native grasses and wildflowers, and are mowed annually to
keep out nonnative trees and shrubs. It’s not quite a lawn,
but neither is it a lunar landscape of pygmy pitch pines and
dwarf chestnut oaks over bare sand dunes.
Though individual native species thrive in Pine Bush soil,
long-term maintenance of the Pine Bush ecology relies on regular
fires to clear out accumulating leaf debris that invasive
species can take hold in and to make more nutrients available
to the native species. And so encouraging wider planting of
native species does beg the question about how well they will
function as Pine Bush habitat.
The answer is they won’t entirely. Prairie-type patches will
require mowing and weeding and replanting. Small patches of
native trees and shrubs and grasses may not on their own attract
the karner blue, or larger signature species, but, notes Hawver,
they could well quietly support some of the Pine Bush’s other
Without fire it wouldn’t be “functional Pine Bush” necessarily,
says Reppert, but that wouldn’t be the point. The awareness
effects would be worth it alone. “It’s a cartoon. It’s to
show the drama,” he says.
Lynne Jackson of Save the Pine Bush, who says that she doesn’t
find appreciation and support for the Pine Bush to be lacking
among any but few developers and politicians, is less excited
about focusing too much energy on native plantings. “I think
reducing invasive species by planting native species would
have a significant benefits,” she says, but “I will have to
admit right now I’m more worried about the bulldozers.”
How far could a leading-by- example native planting effort
on public lands coupled with a dramatic you-are-here campaign
go? Could it take political will and financial support to
a level that would entertain some bolder and more creative
conservation moves than the commission is currently in a political
position to push for? Could it shift the political discussion
more firmly to the side of seeing the Pine Bush as a regional
asset—an economic one—rather than a regulatory millstone around
property owners’ necks?
Jackson, for one, would like to see a land trade between the
Harriman campus and all the undeveloped Pine Bush land currently
being sat upon by developers. This has happened twice before,
she notes, with the SEFCU building and some parcels along
Rapp Road that had been slated for offices. “This is the
opportunity to concentrate development, and keep the Pine
Bush wild,” she says. “Right now Albany has this incredible
opportunity. If done right, an awful lot of Pine Bush could
be saved.” It would save the city a bundle on new infrastructure
costs, she adds, as well as tax revenues lost to the 45B tax
program that gives tax breaks to buildings on formerly undeveloped
Broader awareness among UAlbany students and other campus
visitors could also support Jackson’s proposal that the campus
stop developing anything west of Fuller Road and focus on
densifying its existing campus.
Reppert looks forward to the closing of the Rapp Road Landfill
and suggests it be covered by a Pine-Bush golf course, in
the vein of courses currently being developed at other ecologically
sensitive locations around the globe. It would be a challenging
course—pretty much all sand trap. “In the Northeast you can
only find manicured greens,” he notes, and avid golfers are
currently traveling long distances and paying pretty pennies
to play on such specialty courses.
Any of these proposals, as well as dozens of other potential
proactive conservation measures yet to be imagines, would
require a significant amount of vetting, planning, and advocacy.
What they hold in common is an appreciation of Pine Bush habitat
that goes beyond whether a site currently hosts the beloved
karner blue. “Just because the butterfly isn’t [on a given
undeveloped site], it’s still a habitat. It isn’t a strip
mall, it isn’t a parking lot,” says Hawver. “It’s a resource.
The people who use the Pine Bush and love the Pine Bush know